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A new beginning

Taken in by a high-profile teammate's family, Flagler's Adam Jones found a path to success beyond basketball

Champion Digital | By Lauren Ely

More than an hour had passed. After a couple attempts of dialing and hanging up, Adam Jones gathered the courage to make the call. He never planned on staying forever, just a night or a weekend before he could figure out where to go next.

Jones had learned to manage an inconsistent family life. He grew up in the small town of Oakland, Fla., about 30 minutes from Winter Park, a town he would soon call home. Often times he didn’t have a ride to school and would wake up early to ride his bike. He didn’t always know if there would be food for dinner, and he even had to sleep on his uncle’s front porch at times. Jones was one of four boys and doesn’t recall ever living with just his sibling’s and his parents for an extended period of time.

“Maybe two years out of my whole life I lived with my parents and my brothers,” Jones said. “Other than that, it’s been a house full with my cousins, my aunt and her kids.”

Jones, 21, is now a sophomore at Flagler College, where he plays Division II basketball on scholarship. He no longer worries about having a ride to school, having food to eat or a place to sleep. But life wasn’t always so simple. That fateful phone call changed his life’s path, leading him to family that cared for him and helped give him a chance to pursue an education. But before reaching this tranquil point in his life, he would have to overcome hardships that make regular teen woes of pimples and braces seem attractive.

Jones refers to his hometown, Oakland, as “the ghetto,” and says basketball changed his life.

“It’s just the hood. It’s not a terrible place, but it’s also not a good place. You have trap houses with drug houses. Just bad things happening where sometimes you don’t want to be outside. Sometimes you just have to stay in your yard and not go anywhere else.”

Adam Jones

Jones was just a misguided kid of the streets before he began playing basketball. He describes a bike trail in his neighborhood where he and his friends would hide and throw rocks and eggs at people. Sometimes they would even pick fights with other kids in the neighborhood for no reason.

“We were just doing unnecessary things that ignorant kids would do to look cool,” Jones said. “Basketball, honestly, has changed my life in a tremendous way. It’s a blessing that I’m able to play the game.”

Jones moved in with his uncle, Anthony Hamilton, around the fifth grade. His home life had become more dependable; however, Hamilton experienced health problems from time to time and spent a day here and there in the hospital. But Jones never thought it was anything serious.

It was during his junior year of high school, on a day he describes as normal, just like any other. Jones came home from school and his uncle pulled him aside. He told Jones he was sick and needed a kidney transplant. He needed to move into a smaller place, and couldn’t afford to bring Jones with him.

“My first initial thought was, ‘I’m going to be homeless,’” Jones said. “I had to put on a strong front just so he knew I was fine, but I knew I wasn’t fine. Inside I was hurting and when he left the room I cried, and I prayed.”

His parents weren’t in a position to care for him, and Jones didn’t know where else to turn. He finally picked up the phone and called the only family he knew. He had made a friend on one of his AAU basketball teams: Austin Rivers.

Jones and Austin, son of Boston Celtics coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers and now a member of the New Orleans Hornets, became good friends during the eighth grade while playing on the same AAU team. Jones had spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and summers at the Rivers’ house watching movies, going to Disney World, jet skiing and “just having fun.” The Rivers were familiar with his family life situation, and Jones remembered Rivers’ mom telling him to call if he ever needed anything.

It was almost midnight, but Kris Rivers still answered the phone. She listened as the 15-year-old Jones told her he needed a place to stay – just for a night or two. She told him to hop in a cab and head over.

“I didn’t want to be a burden on someone else,” Jones said. “I didn’t want to just put my problems on someone else.”

The cab pulled up to the Rivers’ lakeside home and dropped Jones off around 1 a.m. Kris paid for his cab fare and warmed up dinner since he hadn’t eaten that night. Austin and his younger brother Spencer were still up playing video games, but Jones went up to the room he had stayed in many times before on holidays and went to sleep.

Jones sat down with Kris and Doc the next day and explained his dilemma. The family had a meeting and asked what everyone thought about Jones coming to live with them. It was decided right then: He would move in and become a part of the Rivers’ family.

Doc Rivers explained he and Kris knew Jones needed help, but it wasn’t just up to them to make the decision. They wanted to make sure their kids were a part of the decision too.

“They loved it,” Rivers said. “They thought it was great. I remember Austin saying, ‘I thought he was already part of our family. I don’t know what the big deal is.’”

“It was great,” Jones said. “Just to hear them say, ‘Oh, we’d love that. That would be awesome.’ It just made me feel great, and it made me feel wanted and welcomed into their home. Basically, I’ve been at their house ever since.”

One might assume Kris and Doc are his birth parents from listening to him talk about his adopted family. He calls them mom and dad, and he says he’s treated the exact same as the Rivers’ other kids: Austin, Jeremiah, Spencer and Callie.

“I feel like I was born a Rivers,” Jones said. “I get the same punishments they do. I get the same privileges they do. Being with the Rivers is just different. We don’t have to go out and do things. We can sit at the kitchen table, and it just feels like I belong. It’s like, it’s my family from day one.”

Jones recalls what he says was the first and one of the only times he was disciplined for misbehaving. Having lived in the Rivers’ house for some time, he had reached a certain level of complacency. Jones showed up for school one day, and decided to skip a class. He says he just didn’t want to be there. Unbeknownst to Jones, his teacher had called Kris, and talked with her about the missed class.

“I walked in the house, and she looked at me,” Jones said. “I knew when she had this look on her face, ‘You’re in trouble.’ She read me my rights. That’s the first time she ever yelled at me. It really opened my eyes.”

Kris explained to Jones that just because he was living a better lifestyle didn’t mean everything was made for him. “[She told me] you still have to continue to work. Everyone in this house is going to work for what they want in life, and school is a responsibility. That’s something you have to do.”

While becoming a Rivers provided Jones with the stability of a family and home life he had never had, it proved problematic for his basketball career. When the Rivers became Jones’ guardians, they decided it would be easier for him to transfer from Orlando Christian Preparatory School to Winter Park High School since Austin already went to school there.

However, several basketball coaches in the area weren’t thrilled to hear this news. They feared the addition of Jones to Winter Park’s already substantial roster of talent would make them unbeatable. Coaches in the area claimed Doc was only taking in Jones to make his son’s team better.

“I was really disappointed in those coaches,” Rivers said. “The first thing I asked all those

coaches, ‘Any of you guys want to, you can take him. We have no problem with that, we just want him to have a good home.’ The fact that that was a problem. Sometimes people get competition mixed up with real life, and that’s what they did on that, and that’s too bad.”

Just when Jones reached that comfort point again, his new coach, David Bailey, pulled him out of class and told him he would be ineligible to play his junior year.

“It’s tough when you have to tell any kid they might not be able to do something they love,” Bailey said. “I could see the hurt in his face, and him trying to figure out why.”

Jones’ transfer had violated what is now Section 9.3.2 of the FHSAA Bylaws, which states, “A student who transfers from one school to another will not be eligible at the new school until the beginning of the next school year…” Here was yet another bump in the road. His junior year of basketball was at stake, a loss that could be detrimental in continuing his career in college.

“That was devastating. No one knew my situation,” Jones said. “It really upset me in a way because that was the least of the Rivers’ concerns. They could care less if I played basketball or not. They’re such a kind family that if I didn’t play basketball, and I was still a friend of Austin’s, they would’ve taken me in regardless.”

Jones decided to appeal the ruling, but he would wait months before a decision was reached. He would have to prove that his move to the Rivers’ house was a “full and complete move.” He would have to meet with the FHSAA and explain his situation, as well as provide documents of the Rivers’ guardianship.

In a letter to the FHSAA, Kris wrote, “Our home offered (Adam) something he had been missing; interaction with and participation in a stable family environment…We are thankful to have (Adam) in our lives and as a member of our family.”

The wait paid off, and Jones was reinstated to play. The Winter Park High School basketball team would go on to the final four in 2008, and a year later during Jones’ senior year it won the state championship.

“He [Jones] was a team leader. He was the kind of kid who gets along with every other kid,” Bailey said. “He was able to hold everyone together, and he was a very unselfish player.”

With all the attention his team was getting from its success on the court, Jones began receiving a lot of individual attention from college coaches. Schools like Fairfield University, Iona College, Siena College and Old Dominion University were all in the mix. College began to look like a reality, making him the first in his birth family to attend.

The possibility of a college scholarship didn’t only open doors for Jones’ education, but something else his Rivers’ siblings had told him: If you get a college scholarship, you get a car.

“This was a rule they had in their family before I was a part of it,” Jones said. “The kids told me at first, and I was just like, ‘Okay, yeah. You’re just blowing smoke.’”

Jones accepted a scholarship and committed to Fairfield University, a Division I school in Fairfield, Conn. “Probably a week or so later my mom was like, ‘What kind of car do you want? We’re going to look at cars,’” Jones said. “I was like, ‘This is serious.’ So I ended up getting a car, which was great and a blessing that I’m thankful for.”

Life looked good for Jones. He was a member of a stable family, graduated high school, just got a new car and was headed to play basketball at a Division I university. But there was another catch, and Jones would have to surpass yet another challenge. Jones did not have high enough SAT scores to be eligible to play his freshman year. He would first have to attend St. Thomas More School in Oakdale, Conn., an all-boys boarding school, for a year.

“It was in the middle of nowhere,” Jones said. “I thought it would be better for me to get away from home. If I was home, I would’ve been trying to go home every weekend. To go to another state, to be more independent, it just helped me grow as a man, as basketball player and as a student.”

The only things he did were go to class, play basketball and hang out in his room. He had no TV and the only Internet available was in the library, which had limited hours. The one TV he had access to in the student lounge, was limited to 30 minutes of viewing per day. The all-boys school also didn’t allow girls in the dorms, and Jones said it got old being around guys all the time.

“Just going a whole year without TV, Internet and just terrible cell phone service, it was bad. I was, honestly, in like depression, but I knew I had to be there,” Jones said.

Standing by his small, square window, Jones would put his phone by the glass and lay in bed waiting for the light on his phone to flash, signaling that he had service. He laughs as he recollects the many times the light would flash and he’d jump up to send a text. Before he could send the text, the signal was gone.

He called and texted Kris countless times when he did manage to get service, asking if he could come home or if there were any other options to get to college.

Adam Jones

Jones went home after the first week of class and practice. Kris stressed to him the importance of finishing school and taking responsibility. She helped him to look past the present and understand that quitting now would be detrimental to his long-term success.

“I told myself, ‘You have to do it,’” Jones said. “‘You put yourself in this situation because you were lazy in school.’ So I just decided, ‘Suck it up. It’s a year. It’s not the end of the world. Just go and do it.’”

He returned to St. Thomas More determined to work hard. He stopped being lazy. With mandatory study halls and proctors monitoring his work, Jones quickly got his act together and passed the SAT.

Jones’ freshman year at Fairfield began in the fall of 2011. The Stags went 22-15 overall, making a trip to the semifinals of the Postseason Tournament. As a freshman, Jones played in 23 of 37 games. However, at the end of the season, head coach Ed Cooley took a head coaching position at Providence College, and Jones decided to transfer.

He considered other Division I universities, but knew there would be a downside to staying in Division I. NCAA bylaws require student-athletes who transfer to Division I schools to sit out a year to allow the student to acclimate to the new institution.

“At the end of the day, I didn’t want to sit out a year,” Jones said. “I talked to my family and decided that Division I or Division II basketball is basketball. You’re going to play good competition regardless, and it’s up to me to make it what it is. I just wanted to play.”

He decided on Flagler College, a small, liberal arts school in St. Augustine, Fla., that competes in Division II. Flagler joined the Peach Belt Conference for the 2010 season, and the men’s basketball team struggled to make the transition. The Saints finished a disappointing 9-17 in 2011. But Jones saw an opportunity to make an impact.

“I just wanted to come here and do what I can do,” Jones said. “Bring my experience, bring my leadership and bring my basketball skills so we can win a conference championship.”

Another upside to transferring to Flagler: Jones is now just a short hour-and-a-half drive from his family in Winter Park. Not only can he make trips home, but his family will be able to watch him play, a rare occurrence when he was at Fairfield.

A communications major, Jones now has the opportunity to not only play basketball, but to receive a four-year degree – something that may have never become a reality if he hadn’t called the Rivers that night. He says he continues to apply the work ethic he learned at St. Thomas More into his studies at Flagler.

Jones describes his life as a journey, and says he doesn’t regret anything in his past. “I don’t fault my [birth] parents with not being able to provide for me,” Jones said. “I still love them to death. I talk to them almost every day if I can.”

He knows life’s bumps and challenges are far from over, but Jones knows he has the support from his family to guide him. Now he makes trips home every weekend from St. Augustine to Winter Park, going back to the people who changed the direction of his life and gave the word family a meaning.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be put in a great situation with a great family,” Jones said. “I’m thankful for it every day.”